Funny Business

In the growing local improv scene, everyone's a comedian

Off the Top frequently goes to Concordia College, and judging from the audience's inventiveness in offering words and ideas, it's not hard to see why. The Concordia crowd prove themselves sadists: During a bastardized version of charades, the Toppers must use mime and gibberish to get an unwitting Jimmy to act out, "You are building the pyramids under the orders of Billy Dee Williams using bricks of Jell-O that tastes like love which you can't appreciate because you have no inner child"; and "You're playing duck-duck-gray-duck with the cast of Up With People wearing only a football helmet and dreaming of cheese."

In "Instant Replay," the players perform a simple scene (this time based on the suggestion "toilet"), then take audience suggestions for what genre to replay the scene in (e.g., opera, Western, film noir). This time, the audience chooses "Chaucer." The players stop and stare. "Whoever said Chaucer, I'm going to beat up after the show," Zach Curtis announces into the microphone. The audience loves it.

The same levity exists in the youngest group in town, ThreePenny Improv. Like Off the Top, ThreePenny features a cast of twentysomething performers--though they seem closer to the twenty side. This is the least seasoned and least polished of the groups, and their show could use a bit more structure. But their flaws also make them accessible: We forgive their lapses precisely because they are not polished, and it makes the company's better moments all the more enjoyable.

The group is the love child of several other young itinerant groups who are (pause, bow head) no longer with us. For them, there's no place to go but up. As founding member Joe Scrimshaw explains, "When we were all in these separate groups, we became friends pretty quickly, then sooner or later we started to do shows together. Well, suddenly none of our groups had an audience because all of our friends were in the show."

ThreePenny is now building an audience of its own. Their Saturday Night REALLY Live series at the Phoenix Playhouse has been attracting between 30 and 60 people a night. Saturday night seems to invite an unpredictable crowd--many scruffy patrons could be card-carrying members of the Society for Creative Anachronism--and there are a fair number of folks who cross over from the adjacent smoke-filled Laughing Cup coffee shop.

At a typical Saturday Night REALLY Live performance, the audience becomes as much of a character as the actors on stage. The players begin a one-liner game. "OK, give me a noun, something that can be found on the farm," an emcee says. "Great, now an adjective. OK, thanks, we will now tell jokes with the first line being, 'Your tractor is so hazy...'" They play a few rounds, each player stepping up to the mike, some bombing completely. For the last round, Scrimshaw asks his audience, "All right, I need a noun; how about something you find in your closet?" at which point one peppy audience member shouts, "gay people!"

Both of these groups are making it--enough to keep going, and even to grow. People show up for improv comedy in greater numbers than they do for much independent theater. There is something more accessible about it to mainstream audiences, an expectation that one will be entertained, instead of bettered.

CSz keyboard player Dennis "To Society" Walker sums up the experience nicely: "I was talking to this bass player, and he was telling me how he was putting together a work on the influence of theosophy on the Prairie School of architecture and I said, 'Wow, I bet you're going to have to write a grant for that.' This is neat. No grant writing. The audience comes, they pay their money, they have fun."

ComedySportz plays every weekend night; call 870-1230. The Brave New Workshop performs a set of improv at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and class teams perform on Tuesday nights; call 332-6620. ThreePenny Improv will perform at Bryant-Lake Bowl Cabaret Theater (825-8949) this month, and at the Phoenix Playhouse (813-0385) the first Saturday of every month. Off the Top Improv can be booked for events; call 879-8090.

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